Kansans rally at state Capitol to defend public services

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Lawmakers arriving at the Kansas state Capitol in Topeka for the first day of the legislative session were greeted by a "People's State of the State" rally Jan. 14.

Held the day before Gov. Sam Brownback's State of the State address, the rally drew Kansans from across the state—including members of labor unions, women's and civil rights groups, healthcare advocacy groups and community organizations. Their goal: to sound the alarm over the threats posed by Brownback's agenda.

Lisa Ochs

Organizers said the rally would put legislators on notice that Kansans don't want the drastic budget cuts, union-busting measures and slashing of healthcare, education and vital public services that the governor has pursued since taking office two years ago.

"The agenda being pushed by the governor and many of our legislators—with the backing of corporate interests and groups such as ALEC—is directly opposed to the values we hold as Kansans and would undermine many of the things that make life good here," AFT-Kansas president Lisa Ochs told rally participants.

Ochs (pictured at left) described Gov. Brownback's "slash-and-trash" approach: "Slash taxes, especially for corporations and the mega-wealthy, ... then use that self-inflicted shortfall as an excuse to gut healthcare, education and other essential public services."

Kansas already faces a state revenue hole of nearly $300 million after the tax cuts Brownback signed into law last year, in what one speaker, former state legislator Ann Mah, called "the worst tax plan ever passed." Now the governor is signaling that further budget cuts and austerity measures are central to his agenda for this legislative session.

AFT Kansas

Subfreezing temperatures didn't daunt turnout or squelch the spirit of rally participants. "We're here today in the cold to send a message to Gov. Brownback, his allies in the Legislature and their special-interest supporters: Keep your hands off our Kansas," Ochs said to the cheering crowd.

Kansas National Education Association president Karen Godfrey sounded the alarm about the effects further belt-tightening would have on public education, noting that in some Kansas districts, kindergarten class sizes have ballooned to 30 children per class, and that in some high schools, social studies teachers are grappling with student-teacher ratios of 177-to-1. "We have to do better for our kids," Godfrey said, citing last Friday's decision by a three-judge panel that found the state has violated its duty under the Kansas Constitution to adequately and equitably fund education.

Following the rally, protesters headed inside the Capitol, chanting outside the House and Senate chambers—"Stand together, fight back!"—as lawmakers were sworn in.

"Certainly, Kansans believe in fiscal responsibility," Ochs said. "But we do not believe a lean state government must be a mean state government. The Kansas I know has always been a place where people look out for one another. Kansans will come together in the next weeks and months to tell our legislators to keep Kansas a place that all of us can be proud to call home." [Christine Bartolomeo, Tom Lansworth/photos by Bryan Pfeifer]